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Pushing Democrats in an Antiwar Direction | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Pushing Democrats in an Antiwar Direction

There are plenty of anti-war Democrats running in today's primary elections in states across the country. There are even a few anti-war Republicans -- mostnotably Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee. But few have done a better jobthan John Sarbanes, a frontrunner for an open U.S. House seat representingMaryland's 3rd District, of articulating the position that the oppositionparty should be taking with regard to George Bush's war.

While he asserts that, "It is long overdue for the Bush Administration toprovide Congress and the American people with a concrete plan for bringingour troops home," Sarbanes pulls no punches with regard to his own party.

"The Democratic leadership in Congress must take action immediately – thatmeans today – by petitioning the President to deliver to the appropriatecommittees in Congress within thirty days two proposed disengagement plansfor Iraq: one that would bring our troops home within six months; the otherthat would bring them home within twelve months," says Sarbanes, a lawyerwho is the son of retiring U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes. "In making thisrequest, Democrats should make it clear that they will use all substantiveand procedural leverage available to them to force delivery of the plans,including resisting the President's budget priorities. As long as thePentagon and the Defense Department resist providing concrete scenarios fordisengaging our troops, it is impossible to evaluate the risks and benefitsof any particular course of action. The Bush Administration must get itshead out of the Iraqi sand and offer the American people a meaningful planfor bringing our troops home."

Bluntly rejecting the charge that supporters of a withdrawal timeline want to"cut-and-run," Sarbanes argues that a timeline is essential to getting theIraqis to stand up so that Americans can stand down. "Setting a timetablefor disengagement of our troops will send a clear message to the members ofthe Iraqi parliament, and will force them to make the compromises necessaryto govern, and that they must do so quickly," argues Sarbanes.

"Thatrequirement is inherent in our request that the Bush Administration delivera six-month and twelve-month disengagement proposal," he adds. "In the past threeyears, there have been three elections in Iraq. Despite this fact, theIraqis have yet to create a functional government. Although the Iraqiselected a parliament in January, the various ethnic groups within theparliament will have to make many difficult compromises in order toestablish a stable government that is responsive to the needs of the Iraqipeople. Their recent selection of a prime minister is a positivedevelopment, although we cannot overlook the fact that it took theparliament over four months to accomplish this task. The Iraqi parliamentmust exhibit a greater sense of urgency in standing up an effectivegovernment. Iraqi officials are less likely to do so if they believe thatU.S. troops are going to remain in Iraq in large numbers for the foreseeablefuture."

Sarbanes is not the only anti-war contender in the race to replace U.S.Representative Ben Cardin, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for Maryland's open Senate seat. For instance, another leading contender, state Senator PaulaHollinger calls the war "a catastrophic failure" and promises to "hold theBush administration accountable for its actions." Complaining that, "inspite of the incompetence of the Bush administration, Congress continues todefer to the White House on the war," Hollinger pledges to call "forhearings to investigate the abuses of power perpetrated by the Bushadministration and for the firing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld."

It is his determination to light a fire under own party thatdistinguishes Sarbanes. This year is likely to produce a number of new Democraticmembers of the House, and many of them will promise to challenge PresidentBush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. But anyonewho has watched Congress over the past five years understands that, beforethe Bush administration can be held accountable, the Democrats have todecide to operate as an opposition party. Only when Democrats have thewisdom and the courage to articulate a clear anti-war position will they begin to steer the debate in Washington. Sarbanes gets credit forrecognizing this.

Keep an eye on how he does today if you want a sense of whether a Democratic takeover of the House this fall will lead to a genuine course correction -- for the party and the country.

Keep an eye, as well, on some of the many other races where anti-warmessages are in play. Some of the most interesting of these include:

* The Maryland Senate race, where former NAACP executive director Kweisi Mfume hasbeen far more aggressive in his opposition to the war than Cardin. Mfume's focus on the cost of the war is especially noteworthy. "The billions ofdollars being spent to wage this war continue to distort our priorities anddrain our economy of much needed resources," the former congressman argues. "We don't everseem to have the money that we need when it comes to driving down the costof health care or driving up the quality of our public schools, because weare throwing so much of it into this war."

* Maryland's 4th Congressional District, where veteran activist DonnaEdwards has come on strong at the close of her Democratic primary challengeto complacent incumbent Albert Wynn. With fresh endorsements from theWashington Post, the major newspaper in the district, and the region'sTeamsters, Edwards is clearly credible. And she is closing with a stronganti-war message in a race against a Democrat who she blisters for "castinghis lot with Bush and the Republicans on such critical issues as Iraq..."

* Minnesota's 5th Congressional District, where Democrat OlavMartin Sabo is retiring. Several of the candidates in the crowded Democraticprimary have articulated anti-war positions. Of the frontrunners, the mostaggressive is state Representative Keith Ellison, who says, "I am callingfor an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. I opposed the warbefore it began; I was against this war once it started and I am the onlycandidate calling for an immediate withdrawal of troops."

* Arizona's 8th Congressional District, where Republican incumbent Jim Kolbeis stepping down. The Democratic field is crowded and Jeff Latas lacks the funding and the name recognition of several of the other candidates. But the retired Air Force fighter pilot is a compelling contender. The recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross for Heroism, four Air Medals, four Meritorious Service Medals, and nine Aerial Achievement Medals, and the father of an Iraq War vet, Latas says:

The Army sent my 19-year-old son to boot camp for three months, and thento truck driver school for two months, and then declared him fully trainedto risk his life for Iraq. Yet in 3 years, they have trained only one out of15 battalions of Iraqi soldiers to defend their own country.Something isn't right about that. It is time for us to leave Iraq to theIraqi people.

I support:

* Bringing the troops home as quickly as possible. The Murtha Plan is our bestoption. We need to reposition our forces out of Iraq, create a quickreaction force stationed nearby to deal with crises that will arise, and weneed to emphasize the use of diplomacy over the use of force.

* Recognizing that we should never have put ourselves in the position ofnation-building, but now that we have destroyed the previous governmentalstructure, we should shift responsibility for assisting the Iraqis from theDefense Department to the State Department, an agency far better equipped todeal with these tasks

* Regaining the trust of other nations with a goal of at least returning tothe state of confidence and good will that existed immediately after 9/11

* Working within the United Nations and NATO to build alliances to deal withcontinuing challenges in the Middle East, especially the immediate problemof how to deal with Iran's growing nuclear capability

* Insisting on separation of powers and the responsibility of Congress fordeclarations of war. Congress must never again give the President blanketauthority to go to do what he deems necessary and then be required toallocate funds to support troops that the President has sent to war.

Latas is one of a number of candidates in today's primaries who are endorsed by Progressive Democrats of America, the party's most energetic anti-war pressure group. Others include: Arizona congressional candidates Herb Paine and Mike Caccioppoli and incumbent Raul Grijalva, a PDA advisory board member; New York congressional candidates John Hall and Chris Owens; and Rhode Island U.S. Senate candidate Carl Sheeler. Maryland candidates Mfume and Edwards are also backed by PDA. While many of these contenders face tough races, none has taken on a more daunting task than PDA-endorsed candidate Jonathan Tasini.

Tasini's opponent in today's New York Democratic Senate primary, Hillary Clinton, has all the advantages of incumbency, celebrity and her vaunted fund-raising prowess. All Tasini has is his position on the war. "My position is a responsible one," says Tasini, "the troops must be brought home now. It is the best solution for our country and for Iraq. I reject the myths that have been promoted against proponents of withdrawal." Locked out of the debates and afforded scant coverage by the media, Tasini has still been a factor in forcing Clinton to moderate what had been a militantly pro-war stance. No matter what vote hegets today, his candidacy will has played a role in moving the Democratic Party toward the opposition position that it must assert if it is to gain the upper hand in this year's political debate and the Congress that will be chosen in November.

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